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Pacers Preview: Lineups and Creativity

“It was too much like the original.” - They

“I don’t know why they changed that.” – Some People

Because of the thousands of variations on these two complaints, there will never be a perfect book-to-film adaptation. Whether you’re attempting to re-conjure the written magic of Harry Potter, assemble a team of Earth’s Greatest Heroes or manufacture an interesting update to the works of Jane Austen, there is simply no way to please the fans, the one-time readers, the non-readers, the critics and the suits.

There are two approaches writers, directors and the executives that control the great green spigot, can take. They can take the conservative approach, cutting here and there for time constraints but sticking to the script laid out before them. We’ll call this the Chris Columbus, whose first two Potter movies opened up new pipelines running into Southern California but rarely, if ever, deviated from the source material. They were books on film, not films. More products, less creations.

The second approach is simply to allow for creative leeway. Degrees vary, but you give Christopher Nolan the chance to make his own Batman, you let David Benioff and D.B. Weiss craft their own, unique scenes for Game of Thrones and you see what happens when you hand Heart of Darkness and The Shining to the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Stanley Kubrick. You allow for vision. And identity.

Both approaches can make money. Both can satisfy expectations. But only the latter tends to exceed them.

When it comes to NBA Playoff matchups, we tend to look at things, at least initially, by the book. If one team has an advantage, we try to figure out how the other team can best counter that advantage. As we do so, we tend to play it safe. That team has an excellent big man, and we assume this other team without the same size at that position will be at a disadvantage, because they’ll be traditional and play size against size.

Somewhere along this process, it becomes easy to lose sight of a team’s identity. In arbitrarily translating the same script to each matchup, we forget that teams can change. Rotations, like adaptations, can be organic. Coaches have vision.

Before we delve into the upcoming matchup between the Miami HEAT and the Indiana Pacers, one in which the Pacers are expected to take advantage of their plethora of talented, big bodies, consider first how the Denver Nuggets are playing the Los Angeles Lakers.

Sure, the Lakers have a huge size advantage with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, but after starting Timofey Mozgov, are the Nuggets trying to match up and play the Lakers’ game?
Their two most successful lineups, and the two that have used the most fourth quarter minutes, involve playing Al Harrington or Kenneth Faried at power forward, JaVale McGee at center and Andre Miller and Ty Lawson in the same backcourt. Denver writes its own script, and it has a chance to win the series.

Against the likes of the 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert and David West, the HEAT can stray from the conservative path as well. They’ve played small, with LeBron James playing power forward, often enough over the past two years – not to mention in the last playoff series – that it has become ingrained in the team’s identity.

“We’re going to play our game,” Erik Spoelstra said. “Versatility is part of our game. Obviously, we’re going to have to make some adjustments as the series goes on, but we’re not going into it anticipating a lot of immediate changes to how we play.”

First, do the matchups call for change?

The numbers, which aren’t completely accurate in depicting one-on-one situations, say no. This season, Hibbert shot 40 percent on 30 field-goal attempts with Joel Anthony on the floor, and 4-of-13 with Udonis Haslem, Miami’s current starter, on the court. In 40 attempts, West made just 35 percent of his shots with Chris Bosh playing. Meanwhile, Danny Granger is shooting 35.9 percent with James on the court over the past two seasons.

*West and Hibbert's shot chart against Miami in the regular season can be seen on the right.

Only the Lakers and Utah Jazz used post-up offense more than the Pacers, and only four teams, according to Synergy Sports, defending those better than the HEAT.

On tape, however, those numbers don’t always play out as you would expect. With Bosh defending, West was sometimes able to establish either deep post position, or gain deeper position with the ball in his hands. With Anthony on Hibbert, who has an excellent lefty baseline hook for when defenses shade him over the top, the Pacers’ big man was often able to get the ball within eight feet of the rim and shoot over the top of the defense.

“You’re not going to worry as much about blocking the shot, “Anthony said. “He’s 7’2”. Once he gets the shot off . . . it’s just a matter of whether he gets a good shot off or not. Once he gets the ball, he’ll always be able to get a shot off. It’s just a matter of how good the shot is.”

No matter who is on the court for Miami, Anthony’s point will be crucial. Indiana is adept at giving their big men the appropriate screens, or putting them in motion, in order to give them good post position. If the catch is made in the paint, the HEAT will be in trouble. But if the defense can push Hibbert and West outside of the paint, forcing the catch out to 15 feet, Miami will be able to treat post-ups much in the same way they treated New York’s isolations. As long as you’re in an inefficient zone, you can play one-on-one.

“We will try to be aggressive,” Spoelstra said. “We’ll make adjustments as needed. Hibbert is a big body; he’s long. So it’s unique. You don’t face a lot of fives in this league that bring that size and skill that he does.

“The biggest thing that you have to prepare for is his size and length. He can be 13 feet out and for a normal post-up player that might be similar to an eight-foot shot. By the time he turns and extends, he’s dripping it in the basket. Every inch matters with a guy like that.”

Deep post-ups, possessions that require a second defender to make a play on the ball, can also easily lead to open threes for the other team, and Miami’s help-dependent defense has certainly been susceptible to exceptional ball movement. But Indiana – post All-Star break, to compensate for a slow start from players like Granger – was in the bottom 10 in the NBA for the percent of their baskets that were assisted (skewed slightly by the number of one-on-one post-ups) and, at least, outside the Top 10 for percentage of three-pointers that were assisted.

It all sounds OK, doesn’t it? It’s not out of the question for Bosh, Haslem and Anthony to wall up the paint and force Indiana to win either with its bigs isolating from further out or by moving the ball well, and often, enough to generate enough open looks. That approach could win Miami a series.

But Miami can also control the series, and dictate every matchup in the game, because of LeBron James.

Playing James at the power forward spot, with any of Miami’s big men at center, forces Indiana to either play him with West, Tyler Hansbrough or Lou Amundson. Put Bosh at center, and suddenly Miami can run a 4-5 pick-and-roll at West and Hibbert – Hibbert is not great laterally, and tends to jump out at ballhandlers with his hips going North-South – with only Indiana’s guards back in the paint prepared to help if James turns the corner or Bosh slips the pick when the defense overplays James.

And even though Indiana takes care of the ball exceptionally well, limiting transition opportunities, this also leaves either a Pacer big trying to catch up with James on fast-breaks after misses, or the rest of the defense cross matching in the open floor.

Otherwise, the Pacers will take Hibbert out of the game and play Granger at power forward.

“There are a lot of teams that have a height advantage over us,” Wade said. “We’re not the tallest team; never have been. But we have our advantages as well. We have to look at the advantages we have and try to find a way to get them.”

Outside of individual matchups, it’s tough to glean much from the team’s earlier meetings, largely because neither team was playing anything close to resembling its playoff rotations. James played a few minutes at four here and there, however, and in 20 minutes those lineups were a combined +24 against the Pacers. Not one lineup was in the negative.

New York was a different beast, but it also speaks to Spoelstra’s willingness to play “small” that Miami’s second most-used lineup was James and Bosh at the 4-5.

There are possible drawbacks to forcing the matchups issue. For Indiana’s part, West could wear out James in the post – James can be very effective defending bigger players, but he can also use a lot of energy trying to front someone like Pau Gasol – and Indiana could get aggressive on the offensive boards before James could force Frank Vogel to change his lineup.

No matter who is on the floor, Miami can’t stray from the habits, of both ball and body movement, built up over the course of the season. But when clear mismatches present themselves, there can be a temptation to drift in isolation and pick-and-roll heavy offense.

“We want to stay away from that,” Bosh said. “We want to make sure we’re going. When you’re going there’s no time to think. You just read and react. And that’s, I think, when basketball players are at their best. When you’re trying to look down, ‘OK, you get right there. Hey, look who’s on him,’ sometimes it works. But we’re a young team. We can get out and run, we have energy. We’re not there yet. Maybe in about four or five years we’ll be doing that. But right now we have to take advantage of our youth.”

“We’re going to try to continue to play team ball,” added Wade. “Coach always tells us that the ball finds energy. We know the lineup on the court that’s very successful for us, especially when our shooters are out there. I think we’ve seen enough gimmick defenses, seen enough switching, we’ve seen all kinds of things. I think what’s successful for us is playing together, moving the ball and then relying on some greatness from certain players at certain times to help take us over the top.”

In the end, the series will be defined by that greatness. By the best players playing their best. The Pacers are an average pick-and-roll team (per Synergy) and Miami is one of the best at defending it, so Indiana will need to generate open threes, take care of the ball and get West efficient touches in the post – any one of those aspects could swing a game for Indiana – but the HEAT will go as their best players go.

Spoelstra has the tools at his disposal to apply his vision, and has shown a willingness to stray from the safe, conservative path. But no matter what changes he makes, an adaptation only succeeds on the strength of the actors playing their parts. And improvising a little along the way.

Statistical support for this article provided by NBA.com and Synergy Sports.